5 speaking habits that make you seem smarter: How to sound confident — even when you're not

Public speaking
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com
Public speaking
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com

It's not just you: Speaking to large groups (or even small ones) can be really hard. When you're in front of an audience, everything you do matters — from how you look, to how inspiring your words sound.

Indeed, these major pressures might be one reason "public speaking" has time and again placed at or near the top of surveys ranking Americans' greatest fears. Sure, there will always be some portion of the population that enjoys speaking. But those who hate it are certainly not alone.

Source: Giphy

Some quick advice: Don't give into the fear. Instead, prepare. How?

Read on for a little cheat sheet. Whether you are giving a presentation at work, making the commencement speech at graduation, or simply raising your hand and saying something at a meeting, you can come across as smart and confident — even if you're secretly super nervous — by adopting these five behaviors. 

1. Follow the "rule of three"

Even smart people don't sound smart in a presentation if they are ill prepared. But projecting your best ideas might be easier than you expect. It's all about establishing credibility early on by seeming organized — and prepping a few simple but surprising (even just a little surprising) talking points.

"Sounding intelligent is about demonstrating your content mastery for an audience," Matt McGarrity, a lecturer for the communications department at the University of Washington, said in an email. "In classical rhetoric, this was ethos: the speaker’s credibility. Aristotle suggested having a good ethos was one of the most effective ways to persuade an audience."

To be clear, you really don't have to know everything in the domain you are discussing. You just need a few specifics that make the audience think, "Aha! Wouldn't have thought of that." That will likely require a few hours of prep, even if your speech is short, so you can cull out the best points to make — and discard any early ideas that don't make the final cut.

A good rule of thumb to follow is the so-called rule of three: Make sure your presentation has three big, overarching lessons or pieces of key information. If you pack in more than that, the audience likely won't remember anyway — and three is a nice, manageable number of items for you to remember.

Of course, if you need your talk to be more comprehensive, you might want to try nesting more points inside of the three larger themes — in a logical manner. You might even use the rhetorical rule of three within each point.

For example, in a speech about improving business writing, you might focus on the three themes of "concision," "clarity" and "color." Then within that first topic, you might give three examples of when concision is important: for example, in a work email, in an internal memo, and — yes — in a presentation!

Finally, you might want to find a buddy with whom to rehearse; if you can't find one, film yourself practicing so you can watch and see how to improve. 

"A speaker who wants to serve the audience mostly needs to be well-prepared and have made time to practice out loud," Lisa Braithwaite, a public speaking coach and trainer told Mic. "You either are intelligent or you aren't, but that's not what the audience cares about."

2. Use thoughtful body language 

There are four types of speakers in the business world: the incoherent, the coherent, the articulate and the eloquent, reports Inc. What sets the eloquent apart is they "use language and body language to win the hearts and minds of their listeners." That's right — eloquence can go beyond spoken words.

What you do with your body matters when you are speaking to a group: You can "add power to your words by moving your body appropriately," as Inc put it. You should not lean against a podium or wall, nor pace around, nor slouch your shoulders when presenting. Stand up straight to project confidence.

Source: Giphy

Other tips: Keep your chin up and watch what you do with your hands. Your gestures can be used to emphasize key points, but if you aren't consciously gesturing, waving your hands around can be a distraction. 

Science of People analyzed thousands of hours of TED talks and found "the most viral TED talkers spoke with their words and their hands." To use your hands effectively as a speaker, keep your gestures fluid and consider incorporating specific movements — like using your fingers to count when making lists.

3. Control your pace

Remember that there is no one "right" pace or tone you have to adapt in order to be an effective public speaker: As McGarrity told Mic, "Vocal and physical performance style is idiosyncratic. Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. had wildly different speaking styles, but both were exemplary."

But what you do need to do is make sure you aren't talking too fast. Carmine Gallo, author of Talk like TED, said the ideal rate of speech is about 190 words a minute for public speaking.

If you talk faster, you sound nervous and make your audience work too hard to keep up. If you talk slower, you could bore your audience. To practice, write up about 190 words of text (use your word processor's word count tool) and practice reading it out over one minute.

Another way to learn to slow down if you naturally talk fast? Practice prolonging your vowels.

4. Don't "fill" — just pause

Even after you've practiced pacing, it can be hard to rid yourself of those filler words or intonations that make you sound less intelligent: As one Harvard Extension School professor points out, "Filler words like 'um' may seem natural in everyday speech, but they do not belong in formal presentations."

"Like" is another one of those, and as Business Insider writes, you'll also want to avoid misusing words like "literally" — or going too casual with "totally" — when you are speaking in a business setting, even if it is relatively informal.

If you find yourself mindlessly interjecting filler phrases as you rehearse, practice stopping yourself before the words leave your lips — and using the moment for a short dramatic pause.

Typically, a pause is a good moment to (quickly) collect thoughts, and further develop or slightly pivot your line of thought. McGarrity suggests finding a colorful, specific example to illustrate your point. "These can be ... short little asides (one or two sentences)," he noted. "An example provides important context and helps the audience picture the idea."

5. Strike a natural, personal tone

Your tone of voice — or your intonation and modulation — shapes how the audience sees you as a speaker or leader. 

That might mean banishing tonal tics, like vocal fry and uptalk, which is the tendency to make all of your sentences sound like you are asking a question. Instead of uptalk, slow yourself and drop your pitch at the end to gain the audience's trust.  

"The tone of your voice is equally important when it comes to understanding what a person is really trying to say," according to Psychology Today. "If the facial expression expresses one emotion, but if the tone conveys a different one, neural dissonance takes place in the brain."

Source: Giphy

How can you make sure your tone of voice makes you sound smarter?

Toastmasters suggests "a natural voice" that projects "cordiality, cultivation and authority." If that sounds vague, try to "find a model to imitate," McGarrity said. "Is there a speaker you like, who also sounds like you? Study them. See what they do to perform their credibility... Incorporate these things into your speech."

Finally, remember that tone can be about more than the literal pitch of your voice — it is also reflected in the words you use and topics you cover.

For example, jargon might make some people think you're smart, but it could turn off many others. "People often hide behind a shield of technical language," McGarrity said. "I certainly understand the desire to use jargon and plow through the talk, but it sounds more confusing than intelligent."

Instead, try to use personal stories and real world specifics to illustrate your point. If you must use jargon, unpack the meaning of the word or phrase with vivid — even humorous — examples. Indeed, demonstrating emotional intelligence will likely pay off even more than simply "sounding smart."

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Christy Rakoczy

Christy Rakoczy is a graduate of UCLA School of Law and the University of Rochester. She is a full-time writer based in Florida and Pennsylvania.

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